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Answering All Your Interactive PDF Questions


An FAQ on the How, Why, and When of iPDFs

A few months ago, I conducted a webinar with my colleague Walter Schirmacher on interactive PDFs (iPDFs). This webinar — Interactive PDFs: An Underused Learning Solution — sparked a lot of interest in the how, why, and when of creating these handy learning tools. As a result, Walter and I have received many questions that I thought I’d address here.

Questions and Answers

What’s an iPDF?

From a big-picture, practical application perspective, an interactive PDF is a standard PDF with simple interactive elements. With a standard PDF, typically you scroll through pages and perhaps use the built-in navigation buttons to move forward or backward through the document. It’s also fairly common to use PDF forms to fill in personal information or to add your signature. But generally, standard PDFs don’t have much interaction. By contrast, an iPDF is a few steps above a standard PDF because of the interactive elements that can be added, such as custom navigation, large free form fill-in fields, or click to reveal pop-ups. There’s even more information on the differences in my previous blog on the topic.

How’s an iPDF different than a standard PDF?

Think beyond the typical 8 1/2 x 11 document with a table of contents and some internal hyperlinks throughout. Think beyond a form with fill-in fields you might create for an event or project. Instead, think about a really great PowerPoint presentation you’ve created or viewed, and imagine how that might be elevated to an iPDF.

Instead of clicking down the left panel to navigate through the slides, you can use custom navigation. You can add hyperlinks for many of the resources, which can be embedded in the iPDF itself as an attachment. You can use it as a participant guide, and your learners can finish pre-work, take notes, and more.

How do learners access an iPDF?

PDFs can be accessed in many ways. For example, they can be opened with Adobe Reader, a third-party reader software, or via a browser. Each of these may yield different results since support varies for PDF viewing. How can you mitigate this? Consider your audience and how they’ll access the content. If end-users access content on company owned/managed hardware, you may have complete control over how content is displayed and be assured of accurate formatting and functionality. If you have little or no control over end-user access (for example, on public networks), it’s worthwhile to weigh the risk of using an iPDF over other options.

What happens when I need to make content changes to PDF content itself? Can I make the edits directly in the PDF Editor?

While most PDF editors allow you to make changes to text and pictures, it’s a best practice NOT to do that. If you make changes directly in the editor and later make changes in the source file, the changes you made in the editor will be lost. You should always make changes in the source file whether it be Word, an InDesign file, or other authoring tool.

Can I put a video in an iPDF document?

Yes, you can embed a video file into your document, but I strongly recommend against it. Videos, due to their size, sometimes cause access problems when embedded. The best practice is to host your video separately and just provide a link to it in your iPDF.

Can I create pop-ups in an iPDF?

Yes, you can add pop-ups. To the learner, the pop-up is seamless, and looks and functions similar to what’s experienced in e-learning. In an iPDF, a pop-up is essentially hyperlinked content — in other words, a new page with identical content except for the revealed response that appears when the learner selects the click area. It’s also possible to add a pop-up as hidden content, which is revealed when triggered; however, this requires more advanced programming skills to implement.

Do your learners need to be able to insert and save personal responses or notes (e.g., a workbook or participant guide)?

If yes, the flexibility of an iPDF to capture learner responses and have them save the document for reference can be quite valuable. The option to have learners enter feedback and then click to reveal desired feedback might be a bonus too.

Does the content require or is it contingent on off-line access?

Since iPDFs (unless extremely large) download easily for off-line access, they’re excellent for audiences with limited or no on-line access.

Will hyperlinking/zooming within the document improve efficiency/user experience?

A little-known feature of PDFs is the zoom feature. If you have a large process graphic or any detailed graphic and need the learner to zoom in on details and highlight specific areas, PDFs allow you to hyperlink (zoom in) to a specific spot on the graphic. And yes, you can effectively zoom in using an e-learning authoring program as well. However, if you’ve already ruled out e-learning, it’s worth considering the advanced zooming options available in an iPDF that aren’t available in a standard PDF.

Do I (or the assigned developer/content owner) have access and the ability to use the development tools?

Without getting too technical, the developer/content owner needs to have access to Word, PowerPoint, or Adobe InDesign. Most people do, so this hurdle typically isn’t too challenging. To add iPDF interactivity, you also need access to a PDF editor, such as Adobe Acrobat.

Can I use this if there’s a large amount of content?

One of the benefits of a PDF is the ability to manage a large amount of content. However, when considering how to package content that requires multiple branching options and that are contingent by role or on learner selections, an iPDF can become very difficult to manage, and I wouldn’t recommend it as a solution.

Can I create custom feedback to learning questions?

While you can set up questions with a form field and prompt for custom responses and provide a pop-up with the expected response, you can’t set up an iPDF to branch based on custom input without advanced programming skills. You could set up an iPDF to branch or hyperlink based on pre-set options, but once you start down this path, you’ll likely need to reconsider if an iPDF is the most effective solution.

Will the content need to be printed?

If yes, a standard PDF will likely do the trick. There’s no need to spend time hyperlinking or inserting form fields if the document is to be printed. Know your audience, and the purpose of the document.

Whew… that was lot. If you have more questions or would like more details about iPDFs feel free to reach out at

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